A head for heights? Most certainly as long as I‘ve a cocktail in my hand or, better still, a series of small plates arriving against a panoramic backdrop. To satisfy my needs, every high rise development these days seems to come with a rooftop bar or restaurant. At the Manchester version of Soho House, due later this year, they are even throwing in a swimming pool eight storeys up below its bar and I note that the ubiquitous Gino D’Acampo has been getting in on the act over in Liverpool, opening an eponymous Sky Bar Terrace at the top of the INNSiDE by Meliá hotel.
It may be that city’s highest alfresco restaurant and bar, but at 270 ft it’s a mere molehill compared with the tallest viewpoint I’ve visited – Chicago’s Willis Tower, the Western Hemisphere’s third highest building at 1,730ft. One caveat, its Sky Deck with jutting-out glass Ledge is the same height (1,450ft) as the top of that old stager, New York’s Empire State.
Both dwarf our own Shard in London, which stands at a mere 1,020ft. One advantage is that the 72nd floor viewing gallery is partially open air, offering views of the pinnacle, as well as 360-degree views around the building. I’m still gob struck by how tiny Tower Bridge looked from 800ft above.
All of which brings us to Manchester’s 20 Stories, whose major selling point is its huge outdoor terrace and bar (with appropriate shelters for when the city’s weather lives up to its reputation). At 300ft, it’s a glamorous, stunning spot to take in the ever-changing skyline and cityscape (see main image). You can understand its appeal as a special place for a drink and a people watch. The wine list is arguably the best in town, but food quality has been variable with a constant change of head chefs since its inception in 2018.
I dined there recently, road-testing their new five-course tasting menu, available Monday to Thursday, 5.30pm-8.pm. It started well with a vegan opener of broccoli steak with horseradish and lemon, but after that it didn’t live up to its £65 a head price. A better bet is to pick from the more casual Terrace Menu, perhaps mixing and matching tomato, basil and parmesan arancini, truffle fries and BBQ flat iron steak tacos with a tipple or two from their Aperol Cocktail Menu.
Black Friar, Salford – keeping it down to earth
Casual and al fresco is a good way to go in this sweltering summer and the maturing ground-level garden of the re-born Black Friar is a choice spot, even if there is no view to speak of. Well, who would want to ogle the traffic hurtling down Trinity Way? By chance, it has chef connections with 20 Stories. Aiden Byrne, launch chef there, was scheduled to do the same for the Black Friar but pulled out around Pandemic time; his replacement Ben Chaplin came from… you guessed it.
His 20 Stories fine dining pedigree was obvious when I first sat down to eat in the newly planted garden with its big fence two summers ago. A couple of dishes were over-elaborate for what was aimed as a gastropub. The menu has since settled down from trying to balance all this with ‘pub classics’, maintaining high quality ingredients while taking fewer risks.
It is good they are still making the most of their urban greenery, though when we went recently to sample their summer ‘Garden Menu’ gusty showers weren’t doing it any favours.This particular menu is served straight from the outdoor bars, so we benefited from its canopy and ski heaters. And a couple of goblets of holy Gavi to heal the soul. There’s a choice of three amply topped flatbreads, including an artichoke version for vegans, who can also dive into a Falafel Friar Bowl. Alongside the charcuterie and cheese platters sat our big extra temptation, definitely not plant-based: Honey-glazed Ham Hock with Welsh rarebit and pickled onions. The Black Friar is very generous with its pickles and, alas with a mountain of coleslaw that accompanied the hock. As a £17 sharing plate this was a meal in itself. We took the half-stripped bone home with us. Combined with yellow split peas and stock, it formed an un-seasonally ballasting soup that lasted us all next day. As blazing sunshine reappeared.
Queen Bee with a red dot, signature vol au vents – it must be Climat
The other end of Blackftriars Street and Chris Laidler is showing off his stings on the rooftop terrace of Climat, now home to four hives and 40,000 bees, including a Queen, marked with a red dot. The wine-led restaurant’s founder and his exec chef Luke Richardson also brought back from Hampshire a further 50,000 bees that are now ensconced at their respective homes in Wrexham and Chester – all contributing honey to Climat and sister restaurant Covino in Chester, a place I also really love.
Chris tells me they expect the total of 90,000 bees will swell to 500,000 over the summer before reducing in size to weather the winter months. He’s resigned to the occupational hazards of bee-keeping – despite wearing the full gear to handle them. He’s more worried that there’ll be enough opportunities for his charges to pollinate in Manchester city centre, even though it’s leafier than you think.
And there is competition. Chris points across the road to the roof of the car park behind the brutalist former Ramada Renaissance, slowly being transformed into the Treehouse Hotel. Here Manchester Cathedral have installed a total of 10 hives in addition to the six already on the cathedral’s roof producing ‘Heavenly Honey’.
It’s amazing what your eye takes in from a great height. On the eighth floor of Blackfriars House, Climat actually benefits from not being up in the stratosphere. I prefer the more intimate nosiness of being level or slightly above rival rooftops, so you don’t miss intricate features. Seen from the outside terrace (well away from the swarms) or through floor-to -ceiling plate glass. Perhaps with a 500cl carafe of Bourgogne Aligoté at your elbow – ‘is that honey on the nose?’ – and a signature vol au vent while awaiting a small plates parade of what Luke dubs his ‘Parisian expat food’.